“This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Such was the response of many who heard the words of Jesus that day in the synagogue in Capernaum. What did Jesus’ audience find so difficult to accept?
In this article, I will discuss one of the most – if not the most – theologically significant statements in the Bible. It is also one of the strangest and most challenging to understand.
In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus makes a remarkable statement. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” A prima facie reading of the verse is unusual in its own right. Yet, the verse possesses significant theological implications as well.
In order to address what Jesus is saying, it is helpful to place the remarks in their proper context.
Jesus’ remarks are prefaced by referencing an event depicted in the Book of Exodus. In response to the Israelite’s complaints, God provided them with manna (a substance that could be made into bread). (See Exodus 16:13-16). After referencing this event, Jesus contrasts the bread that the Israelites ate with Himself. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Jesus’ audience is stunned, asking themselves, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Remarkably, Jesus does not seek to soften or modify His remarks. Instead, He seems to be even more emphatic. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”
How are Catholics to understand this most remarkable of biblical passages?
Any examination of John 6:54 requires that we determine whether Jesus was speaking literally or metaphorically (i.e., spiritually).
To be sure, Jesus’ teaching often incorporated metaphors and parables. However, there are a number of reasons to suggest that Jesus intended His statement (as depicted in John 6:54) to be understood literally.
The first reason lies in the fact that Jesus does not seek to modify His original statement when challenged. As we saw above, Jesus doubles down on His original statement that He is the living bread.
Additionally, Jesus is emphatic in His choice of words. “Real food and real drink.” Not the language of one trying to speak metaphorically.
If Jesus intended His statement to be understood literally – as it appears He did – this leads to the question, how can this be? How can Jesus truly offer His body and blood as food and drink for the life of the world? In order to understand how Jesus can offer Himself in such a manner, it is necessary to understand the Eucharist.
The hinge upon which the sacrament of the Eucharist turns is something called transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is a subject so complex that it cannot be fully treated here. Nevertheless, borrowing a concept from Aristotelian metaphysics – form and matter – helps in explaining transubstantiation to some extent.
Form is what the particular thing is, so form must always be present when discussing any particular thing or any being. On the other hand, matter is the substance that makes up the thing. For example, the form of a human being is the soul. It is the essence of a human being. The matter is what the human being is composed of; the physical body. (See “The Physics” by Aristotle).
In the context of the Eucharist, transubstantiation is the changing of the form of the bread into the body of Jesus and the form of wine into the blood of Jesus. This process is done without changing the matter of either the bread or the wine. That is to say that during the Eucharistic Prayer, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Jesus while still retaining the appearance of bread and wine.
Placed in this light, it becomes quite difficult for any unbiased reader of the text to deny that Jesus’ statements, as depicted in John 6:54, are not a precursor to the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper (or last supper) refers to the meal that Jesus and His apostles had prior to Jesus being arrested and Crucified. “Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ And likewise, the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.” (Luke 22:19-20).
From the words “Do this in memory of Me,” Jesus institutes what has become called the Eucharist.
Ultimately, this issue of Jesus offering Himself as “food for the world” comes down to this; if Jesus is Who He says He is and if Jesus is Who He appears to be, then He is God incarnate, and it is of great significance that we accept His words as truth. This includes the “hard truth” of Jesus being truly present in the Eucharist.
The Bible, as a library, can contain some complex and dense texts. Perhaps none are more strange and significant than the words spoken by Jesus as they are conveyed in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.
At the heart of the Catholic experience is the claim that God became a human being and that that human being, Jesus Christ, offered Himself up so that our sins may be forgiven. Furthermore, if Catholics seek to spend eternity with God, we must partake of the food that gives eternal life.